Reflections on Graduating

Since graduating with my bachelor’s degree this past May, I have wanted to hash out my thoughts and lessons learned from my four years at College Park. Prepare yourself for a long, stream-of-consciousness-esque read!

My inspiration to write this comes in part by my mentor at Asana, Chi, to do this. In early June, she did a small little recap of her journey from Vietnam to Singapore to Yale to the present, which was wholesome and incredibly touching. It made me think that a small reflection of my journey thus far is clearly overdue for me.

Finding your Community

I have always seen university as an intellectual hodgepodge - from early on, I knew I wanted to surround myself with the brightest and kindest people to help me thrive and challenge my worldview. Truly, it was fortuitous that I was able to meet some of these charismatic individuals from my class early on in my freshman year. Through them, I was able to meet many of the people that I share close bonds with in the present.

The people that you surround yourself with will be your support system in the times when you struggle. Going into university, I was lucky to be placed in the Gemstone Honors Program. While I did not stay with the program for the entirety of my tenure in college, the individuals I met through Gemstone - more generally, the Honors College - in my freshman year would prove to be a fantastic foundation in the years to come.

I would like to think that part of this camaraderie was born from our shared commiseration of the Ellicott Community. To the missing air conditioning that made living conditions akin to an inferno, questionable roommates that forced us to the lounge for shelter, and lack of edible variety in Diner food, I say thank you for helping our freshman selves build strong character and rapport.

Other communities from which I found enjoyment included Bitcamp and UMDCS.

From Bitcamp, I found an incredible group of entrepreneurial minded people. The organization displayed the value of trust and the power of driven individuals in transforming vision to reality. It was also inspiring to know the greater context of the work that we were undertaking. Why was I doing what I was doing? Why should I help out with the organization? This was one of the first times that these questions were answered for me, and I could get behind a cause that I agreed with. I wanted to support things that I believed in. It makes the going so much more easier, would you not agree?

Outside of extracurriculars, the classes that I took in the computer science department were where I felt that I started learning for the first time. And by learning, I mean learning to understand the material, rather than memorizing it. Until the spring semester of my sophomore year of university, I was memorizing everything to achieve high marks. I retained nothing of importance after the fact because my mind was not built to formulate ideas on my own, but rather only spew them out when required. Of course, such a setup is not sustainable. It was eye-opening to find a setting with other individuals that challenged my idea of learning and knowledge during this time of my undergraduate years. This experience shaped my path of study for my remaining semesters.

These two communities were impressionable in these regards. I cannot stress the importance of finding communities that helps you succeed. To journey to any goal is itself a daunting task. Doing so as a lone individual makes the journey exponentially harder. I can surely say that I would have not made it through college without my support system of communities in place.

Be it fraternity, organization, athletics, or any association, it is of paramount importance to find where you belong. Without a support system in place, the personal struggles and obstacles that you will encounter in your college education will become exponentially harder. My support system lifted my spirits whenever my emotional or academic fortitude was questioned. I could not have endured my four years at university without them.

Bending the Rules

With all the bureaucracies in place at the University, it may feel like when a decision is made, it is final. While the system of the bureaucracy will probably be your mortal enemy at the University, it is in my mind that the individuals constituting the bureaucracy are reasonable people. The system is in place to have checks and balances, ensuring that nobody is cheating the system, but in any regard, you should also take the responsibility to ensure that you get what you want. When the decisions of the bureaucracy are not inline with your desired reality, it is worthwhile to question the system. It is of my unoriginal belief that you can shape your destiny to whatever you want it to be.

During my time, I encountered many situations with results that were hardly pleasing for me. After pouting and complaining, I took action to question whether the outcome could be rectified my favor. Usually, it did!

Before I even got to university, I remember that when my acceptance letter to the University of Maryland came, I was upset. Many of my friends had this option to rank their preferred living and learning community for the university, since most had been accepted to either the scholars or honors program. I did not have this option, which was a little concerning, but only irked me just a bit.

Now, I would like to think I was a decent student back in high school, so I was surprised at this, but not particularly fazed into action. It just irked me, simply put. I did not even get my preferred major at the University - I was put into Letters and Sciences, a fancy title for undecided. The shortest end of the stick was given to me, but again, at the time, I could not be bothered, and I quickly brushed it off.

This was back in the January of senior year of high school. Regular decision acceptances had not come out yet and I positively sure (read: arrogantly confident), that I would be attending some private university anyways, and not my local state university.

When the results of all regular decisions came out in late March, of my five remaining applications that I had sent out, only 1.5 were received positively. I had gotten into Northeastern in Boston, which I only applied because they did not need a supplemental essay. I remember opening up the emails at a track and field meet at Dundalk with my friend, Adolfo. We both opened up our Princeton decisions and saw that we had been waitlisted. And then for the rest of my applications (UPenn, Yale, JHU), I received fat rejections.

Looking back on this event is horrifying - clearly, I had no clue what I was doing, yet I thought I did. I probably should have applied to a wider selection of schools in the usual sort of safety, stretch, and reach fashion. Of course, this is all in hindsight. I had a few advisors telling me to do this back then, but my overconfidence got the best of me. Marissa, if you are reading this, I am sorry for not listening to you.

When it became clear to me that I would be going to the University of Maryland, I wanted to have the opportunity to be put in a living and learning community. Primarily, it was a matter of pride. Although I was definitely thick-skulled back in 2015, I believed that I had worked hard academically in high school and the decision of the university was mistaken. In a mixture of desperation and anger, I wrote a strongly worded email to the the director of the Honors College in an attempt to for them to reconsider their decision. Thank the heavens that I made this move back then. If it were not for this email, I would not have met some of the people that I did my first year of university. I did not get a response at first, but after a few follow ups, I got something of note.

Hello Rex,

Thank you for contacting us about your interest in the Honors College. I will meet with our Honors Admissions Committee to re-review your application. I apologize for not responding sooner–I was out of the office recently, and I’m still catching up on email. You can expect to hear back from me with a final decision within two weeks.

We had an exceptionally talented pool of applicants this year for our limited spaces, which made the admissions decisions all the more difficult. All applications are reviewed multiple times by a committee of senior faculty and staff. Please understand that, in most cases, our admissions decisions are not reversed, and we do not maintain a wait list. Nevertheless, we will carefully reconsider your application, and I will be in touch with you as soon as possible. You are welcome to contact me in the meantime if you have any questions.

Best regards,


Yes! A second chance. Two days later, I received another email:

Hello Rex,

Congratulations! The Honors Admissions Committee has re-examined your application, and I am happy to tell you that the committee has decided to extend to you an invitation to join the Honors College.

This was honestly an ecstatic moment for me. I was beyond happy that this was able to pan out the way that it did. And this kind of initiative served me well later in my future years at university in a myriad of situations, from registering for classes that I wanted to be in, to hustling money from companies to sponsor Bitcamp, and even converting résumé rejections into full-time offers.

Anyways, that was a convoluted way to say that you should know your worth and do not sell yourself short. After all, you know yourself best. If you are confident in the path you want to take, then assert yourself - there is bound to be some level of the bureaucracy that will give you the decision you want if you are reasonable enough.

Glancing Back with Older Eyes

So, with classic post-senior vibes, I believe I have a small amount of authority to impart some wisdom. Well, to be honest, I have a lack of wisdom, but more of a combination of wishes and takeaways from college. These ideas and opinions manifested from the path that I took in university, so it is not applicable to everyone. Honestly, I hesitate to give advice because there is not a cookie cutter solution that works for everyone. But I digress - here are some assorted thoughts on the past four years.

On Campus Involvement

I wish I went more out of my comfort zone in college. And by that, I mean that I had urges to join other organizations for entertainment or professional development that were never realized. I seldom put myself out there - most of the initiatives that I joined at university were determined on the basis of which of my friends had joined. Instead of this mindset, I could have pledged my time with organizations for which I had strong internal interests. For example, I joined club running unbelievably late, in my last semester of college, which did not afford me much time to resonate with this community more. I wish I put myself more out there to find other such communities. From my point of view, I held myself back because of my unwillingness to sacrifice my performance in classes. Looking back, I could have gotten away with lower marks or not attending some classes in exchange for more diversity in my college experience. I have always wanted to rush a professional or social fraternity. Or join salsa club to get some musicality in my life. Around junior year, when I had feelings of stagnation, I should have been throwing myself out there to acknowledge this feeling and act upon it.

What is Brilliance

Orthogonal to involvement, it has taken me a while to understand that performance in structured coursework does not readily translate to brilliance in academia or industry. Intuition is key, and having to be forced to memorize facts without comprehension is an awful feeling. It is an ongoing process for everyone to gain understanding at such a fundamental level. I wish I was more keen in this regard to learning.

On this note, people are more than the sum of their academic achievements. Honestly, it is jaw dropping to witness the sheer brilliance of some people at university, and you never guess that their grades are lacking. The institution for education selects for a certain type of person to flourish - but don’t be deceived - there are others with unique viewpoints and skill sets that will catch your eye if you make yourself aware. The first two episodes of Revisionist History S4 illustrate this phenomena well - Gladwell’s storytelling is quite entertaining, so listening should be enjoyable.

In essence, there are many vibrant, engaging people to converse with, learn from, and have as a friend. I wish I was as radiant as them.

Diversity of Discipline

Now, on actual learning of specifics, there is a brilliance that comes with knowledge in a diversity of topics. I changed my major three times during university, but while I took a diverse list of technical classes, many of them ended up not being of interest to me. However, I cannot say that I regret taking these breadth of technical classes, as they allowed me to find out what I wanted from my education. I’m glad I was able to understand and embrace this negative result.

I have always wanted to take something that sounds cool and out of the ordinary like wine tasting or sailing. Unfortunately, such classes were not offered at College Park so I was out of luck. Also, another hinderance to taking such classes was that I had the mindset of “optimizing” my learning in college. My definition of an optimized schedule was maximizing the amount of technical classes pertinent to my area of study. In my case, it was registering for as many computer science and mathematics classes as possible.

This motivation came from the idea of wanting to be incredibly efficient and knowledgeable in my future workplace - whatever I was studying, I studied to ensure that in the off chance that I encountered the subject, that I would be adequately prepared with the ability to pattern match on what I had already been exposed. Furthermore, education in the states has its infamy for a hefty price tag. With this in consideration, I felt guilty if any of my classes lacked what I deemed to have immediate, pragmatic utility.

Nevertheless, it was truly closed-minded to wave away the idea of taking classes to diversify my thought. Given my recent interests in literature and contemporary history, if I were able to immerse myself in Russian literature or Asian American studies, maybe I could have discovered these joys of mine earlier in my education. I did have this opportunity, yet regrettably, I chose not to execute on it.

A recent interview with Noam Chomsky simmers on this particular issue of a supposed hierarchy in the kinds of knowledge worth pursuing. Chomsky counteracts common arguments of pragmatism against arts and literature. He elucidates that if one prefers not to dwell on such subjects, of course, one is entitled to do so. But these preferences should not be imposed on others. It would be arrogant to prevent those with such interests from finding their own development from the knowledge they seek.

In response to the idea that our interests in forms of knowledge should be guided by market forces, similar to a feeling of guilt from pragmatic utility that I encountered, Chomsky has these choice words:

Would we have wanted that to happen anytime in the past? What kind of world would we live in if that were the case? First of all, you wouldn’t have Facebook, and you wouldn’t have computers, and you wouldn’t have literature, and you wouldn’t have arts. You would have — we would maybe be individual farmers, peasants somewhere, trying to keep alive through the next harvest.

There is a beauty in appreciating fields of study other than your own. The entirety of human knowledge is vast, and to understand that is a humbling and inspiring motivation for yourself to understand more about the world.

Closing Remarks

Traditionally, attending university is a nice four years of your life. Looking back, I’d like to say these years were formative. And without a doubt, they have been.

Thanks to those who helped read an initial draft of this post! Couldn’t have made this without you all. Cheers.

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